- The Washington Times - Monday, February 23, 2004

An isolated case of mad cow disease and an outbreak of bird flu on U.S. farms indicates the vulnerability of American agriculture to disease — either spread accidentally or intentionally — and the economic disruption that could result.

Federal and Texas agriculture officials said yesterday that they had diagnosed a highly contagious and, for poultry, deadly strain of avian influenza on a Texas farm. The disease also spread to live bird markets in Houston.

The quick spread of disease among highly concentrated animal populations is one soft spot in the U.S. food system that terrorists may exploit to taint food and damage the economy, according to government and industry officials.

President Bush last month issued a Homeland Security Presidential Directive to establish a national policy to defend the agriculture and food system against terrorist attacks, major disasters and other emergencies.

The Homeland Security Department will take the lead in coordinating numerous government agencies, farmers, processors and medical professionals involved in an “extensive, open, interconnected, diverse and complex structure providing potential targets for terrorist attacks,” the president said in the directive.

“We should provide the best protection possible against a successful attack on the United States agriculture and food system, which could have catastrophic health and economic effects,” he said.

The agriculture and food sectors offer multiple, often vulnerable targets from farm to table — including crops, livestock, processing and distribution facilities, wholesale and retail outlets, storage, transportation and research labs, Lawrence J. Dyckman, director of natural resources and the environment for the General Accounting Office, told a congressional panel in November.

Farmers long have been attuned to the dangers of diseases such as mad cow disease and avian influenza.

“This is nothing new for agriculture, but certainly it shows that we are a vulnerable sector and we have to work to make sure we have the resources and dollars to continue a vigorous program [against animal disease and pest control],” said Caroline Rydell, director of congressional relations with the American Farm Bureau, an industry group.

But a terrorist attack on the food system would bring a new level of uncertainty to a vital sector of the economy.

Food production accounts for about 10 percent of annual economic output in the country, according to the Commerce Department. And although farming directly employs less than 3 percent of the American population, one in eight persons works in an occupation directly supported by food production, according to a study published this year by the Rand National Defense Research Institute, a federally funded research and development center, for the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

“Unfortunately, the agriculture and food industries are vulnerable to deliberate [and accidental] disruption,” Peter Chalk, an associate political scientist at Rand, said in the report.

“The fiscal downstream effect of a major act of sabotage against the food industry would … be multidimensional, reverberating through other sectors of the U.S. economy and ultimately impacting directly on the American consumer,” he added.

With mad cow, a fatal disease technically called bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), and avian influenza, U.S. farmers lost overseas markets when countries banned some American beef and poultry. In the case of beef, more than $3 billion in annual exports were shut down in a matter of days and have yet to resume.

Those cases were spread naturally. The infected cow likely contracted BSE when it ate tainted feed, and the chickens catch and spread avian influenza through contact with migratory waterfowl, one another, or with people or machines that unintentionally track the disease from farm to farm.

Dr. Ron DeHaven, chief veterinary officer with the U.S. Agriculture Department, said yesterday that biosecurity standards in the U.S. poultry industry allowed officials to catch the bird flu early and contain it.

“So we have, at least within this country, a commercial industry that is very tuned to the need for good biosecurity. And there will be a real emphasis now in that area obviously because of known infection,” he said during a conference call.

Bioterrorism or agroterrorism, the intentional spread of disease, is almost unknown in the United States. In 1984, a sect poisoned salad bars in Oregon with salmonella bacteria, causing 750 persons to become ill. In January 2003, 92 persons became ill after buying ground beef from a Michigan supermarket that was intentionally contaminated with nicotine, according to a GAO report in November.

But an attack on the U.S. food supply is a concern. When Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman disclosed the United States’ first case of mad cow disease Dec. 23, she quickly moved to reassure a country concerned about terrorism that it had not been attacked.

“I would emphasize that based on the information available this incident is not terrorist related, nor is it related in any way to our nation’s heightened alert status. I cannot stress this point strongly enough,” she said at a news conference.

Some loops are closing, or at least being more closely monitored. The Bioterrorism Act of 2002, for example, required the Food and Drug Administration to register by the end of last year foreign and domestic facilities that manufacture, process, pack or hold food for human consumption.

Sen. Jim Talent, Missouri Republican, has promoted creation of an agroterrorism center to better assess risks and deal with potential threats. The mad cow and avian influenza cases should help move forward such efforts to improve farm and food safety, he said.

“The safety system we have was designed to deal with unintentionally occurring situations. We have to ask about intentional incidents, is the system ready for that? I think we don’t know yet,” Mr. Talent said.

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